Explosions ripped through Gaza early Tuesday morning as the Israeli Air Force assassinated three senior members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, days after a short-lived but fiery flareup of violence set the restive region on edge.
The Israel Defense Forces said it had assassinated Khalil Bahtini, who commands Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza, Jihad Ghanem, a top official in the group’s military council, and Tareq Izz ed-Din, who it said directs Islamic Jihad terror activities in the West Bank from a base in Gaza. The separate strikes on the three took place within 20 seconds.
Islamic Jihad confirmed that the three were among the dead. The spokesman for the terror group’s military wing later vowed to respond to their deaths in a video statement.
Israeli residents of areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza were instructed to enter or stay near bomb shelters amid fears of reprisal attacks, as sorties thundered across the Strip.
The bombings came days after Gazan terrorists led by Islamic Jihad fired 104 rockets toward Israel in response to the death of an alleged senior member of the group who had been on hunger strike in Israeli prison. Several rockets struck Sderot during the May 2 clash, injuring three workers and damaging homes and cars.
Previous strikes on Islamic Jihad leaders have sparked barrages of rockets on Israeli civilians and intense battles with Israeli troops, some lasting several days.
At least 13 people were killed in the bombing runs, including four children and four women, according to the health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory. Islamic Jihad said the wives of the three commanders and a number of their children were among the dead. Some 20 people were reported injured in the strikes.
“The Al-Quds Brigades and the resistance affirms we will abide by our commitment and duty toward the martyrs, and will confront the aggression with steadfastness and courage,” said the spokesman, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza.
The so-called Joint Operations Room of various Palestinian terror factions in the Gaza Strip, which includes both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said Israel and its leaders would “pay the price” for the deadly airstrikes.
The IDF said Bahtini was the group’s “senior operational officer,” with close contacts to Islamic Jihad’s senior political leadership.
He took over the vaunted position after its previous commander was killed in a strike last year.
“Bahtini was entrusted with approving and carrying out all terrorist activities from northern Gaza, as well as planning and directing terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and planned rocket attacks against Israel in the immediate future,” the army said.
Bahtini , 44, who lived in Gaza City, began his activity in Islamic Jihad during the late 90s. The IDF said that throughout the years, he was involved in terror activity against Israel including suicide bombings, explosive attacks, rocket fire, and directing terrorist activities in West Bank.
Ghanem, 62, who lived in Rafah, was a key liaison for transferring money and weapons between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the IDF said.
The IDF said Ghanem was one of the “most senior members of the organization,” and previously served in several key positions, including as head of Islamic Jihad’s Southern Gaza Brigade and Secretary of the Military Council.
Izz ed-Din, 49, was also involved in moving money between Gaza and the West Bank for terror activities, the IDF said. Originally from the West Bank town of Arraba, Azaldin had been previously jailed in Israel for involvement in suicide bombings in the early 2000s.
The IDF began hitting targets in the Strip just after 2 a.m. in a coordinated surprise attack on the group’s senior leaders.
Military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the IDF had achieved its goals with the opening strikes.
“At this stage, we achieved what we set for ourselves, we hit those needed, and if necessary we will deepen the attacks more. We are prepared for any scenario,” Hagari told reporters.
He said 40 aircraft, including fighter jets, carried out the main strikes within seconds of each other, at three locations in the Strip.
“The operation was carried out with professionalism and precision in planning and execution… there were a few seconds between the hits. All the buildings were struck within seconds in a very tight window of time. A complex and high-quality attack by the Air Force,” Hagari said.
Witnesses said an explosion hit the top floor of an apartment building in Gaza City and a house in the southern city of Rafah. Palestinian media said several people were injured.
Dozens of strikes were reported across the Strip in the ensuing hours, sending fireballs skyward as the army targeted terror training sites.
The army dubbed the campaign Operation Shield and Arrow.
“It is a defensive and offensive operation,” Hagari said.
Islamic Jihad had yet to respond as of 8 a.m., likely a result of Israel catching the group off-guard, but the coming hours were likely to see intense volleys at Israeli cities.
The IDF’s Home Front Command issued instructions for residents of areas near Gaza to stay in or near bomb shelters. It instructed local authorities to open public shelters, and announced that it would block access to some roads running near the enclave, over fears of anti-tank missile fire or sniper attacks.
It also ordered that school be canceled in areas near Gaza as far away as Lachish and Beersheba. Outdoor gatherings were also banned, placing a damper on the minor Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer, which takes place Tuesday and often features outdoor activities for kids.
Train service between Ashkelon and Netivot was canceled and crossings between Israel and Gaza were shuttered as well.
Home Front Command gave the go-ahead for towns bordering Gaza to begin evacuating residents to other parts of the country, with the military estimating that fighting could last several days.
Hagari said towns already have plans drawn up for such an eventuality, along with hotel arrangements for residents who must leave home for fear of rocket attack.
Anticipating a spiraling conflict lasting several days at least, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant okayed the army to call up reserve troops as needed. Hagari said the IDF was expected to call up several hundred reservists in the coming day, mostly in the Air Force, Southern Command, and intelligence units.
Gallant later told mayors and community leaders in southern Israel that the fighting could last for several days.
“We must be prepared for any scenario, including a prolonged campaign with an extended range of fire,” Gallant said, according to remarks provided by his office.
“It is very important that the citizens, under your leadership, be disciplined, attentive, and listen to life-saving instructions. The IDF and the security forces are prepared with all means and on all fronts,” he said.
“The defense establishment will provide whatever assistance is required, I instructed the professionals to be in continuous contact with you and take care of everything required for the needs of the residents. You have our full support,” Gallant added.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to convene his high-level security cabinet later in the day to discuss the conflict. He did not convene the forum prior to the launch of the operation.
Netanyahu has come under pressure from hardliners in his cabinet for a harsher response to Gazan rockets, as well as to take offensive measures rather than only reacting to attacks.
Footage documenting one of the Israeli airstrikes on Khan Yunis, south of the Gaza Strip, earlier tonight. pic.twitter.com/A4Ae8sp8Rt
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) May 9, 2023
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir cheered the attack, tweeting, “About time!”
President Isaac Herzog also hailed the IDF for the airstrikes, while calling on Israelis to follow the military’s instructions.
“We face many security challenges that require us to behave responsibly, including following the directives of the Home Front Command. All of us, in our hearts and in our thoughts, are with the IDF, the security forces, and the residents of the south,” Herzog said in a statement.
Since pulling out of the Strip in 2005, Israel has fought two major ground wars with Gaza, as well as two air wars lasting at least a week and dozens of more limited clashes. Gaza terrorists, led by Hamas, are thought to possess tens of thousands of rockets that can hit anywhere in the country.
The airstrikes are similar to one in August 2022 in which Israel bombed places housing commanders of Islamic Jihad, setting off a three-day blitz of rocket salvos and reprisal attacks. Israel said at the time that the initial attack was spurred by concrete threats of an imminent attack.
Hamas remained on the sidelines of that conflict, likely helping keep it limited, and leading to some hopes that the terror group had matured into a non-violent political actor. Hamas put its name to the umbrella group that claimed the rocket fire earlier this month, though it’s unclear how active a role it took in the clash or how active a role it will take in any reprisal Tuesday.
In a statement, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh warned that Israel “will pay the price” and that “resistance” would be unified, but a separate condemnation from the group at large did not contain any such threat.
Meanwhile, the IDF conducted arrest raids across the West Bank overnight and on Tuesday morning, detaining eight wanted Palestinians.
During an operation in Nablus’s Old City, a wanted Palestinian man was arrested, and two assault rifles were seized at his home. A second suspect was detained nearby, the IDF said.
The IDF said Palestinian rioters hurled stones at forces during the operation, and gunmen opened fire and set off explosives as the troops left the city. One soldier was lightly hurt.
The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry reported a 14-year-old boy wounded by IDF gunfire in the city. He was taken to a hospital and listed in stable condition, the ministry said.
Agencies contributed to this report.